August 24, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Marie Burns:
I never know if David Brooks of the New York Times is ignorant or cunning. I don’t know if he’s purposefully obfuscating or if he’s just copying out some malarkey he read in Right Wing News. It doesn’t matter. The proposals he espouses are both draconian and dangerous today and to the future of the United States.
After more-or-less ignoring Mitt Romney throughout the campaign season, Brooks has returned from vacation to devote all of his New York Times writings this week to Paul Ryan’s “incredibly brave” plans to decimate the social safety net: As Brooks wrote in his Conversation with Gail Collins, “Romney and Ryan do have an incredibly brave and sensible Medicare reform package on offer. It’s written down. It’s on paper.” (Emphasis added.) Yeah, some of it is written down, but not all on the same page and not all on paper. As Romney himself has distinguished his fiscal plans from Ryan’s: “I have my budget plan as you know that I’ve put out. And that’s the budget plan that we’re going to run on,” Romney said when appearing on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Ryan at his side. As to what Romney’s immediate plans for healthcare are, he isn’t saying, beyond promising repeatedly to “repeal ObamaCare on Day One” and to reinstate the $716 billion cost savings that the Affordable Care Act applied to MediCare. The new Romney/Ryan plan, according to an extensive report by Jackie Calmes of the New York Times,
… would immediately add hundreds of dollars a year to out-of-pocket Medicare expenses for beneficiaries. That would violate Mr. Romney’s vow that neither current beneficiaries nor Americans within 10 years of eligibility would be affected by his proposal to shift Medicare to a voucherlike system…. Henry J. Aaron, an economist and a longtime health policy analyst…, called Mr. Romney’s vow to repeal the savings ‘both puzzling and bogus at the same time.’ … Restoring the $716 billion in Medicare savings would increase premiums and co-payments for beneficiaries by $342 a year on average over the next decade; in 2022, the average increase would be $577.”
As far as I can tell, an overview of the Romney/Ryan Medicare plan appeared briefly on a whiteboard which Romney whipped out at a campaign event last week. Romney dramatically drew a 2×2 matrix – he said one side represented Obama’s plan and the other side showed the Romney/Ryan plan. “The problem with Romney’s Medicare chart,” Ezra Klein of the Washington Post wrote, is that “it’s not true”:
Romney’s description of what happens to the next generation of retirees deserves to be quoted in full: ‘The Medicare trustees have notified the president that the plan will go bankrupt, Medicare Part A, in the next 12 years,” he says. “Under the plan I have proposed, it is solvent.’ That’s … it. Those are the only details he provides. He literally tosses his marker away after saying those words.
But the words aren’t true…. Romney, running for president as a fiscally tough candidate who won’t duck hard issues but will also never, ever, ever cut Medicare, has not followed Ryan and Obama’s lead and imposed a spending cap. So we have no real idea what spending path he’s outlined for the program, much less how he would achieve it if his vague voucher plan doesn’t realize the savings he claims, which it won’t.
Notably, a whiteboard, just like an Etch-a-Sketch, is designed to be erasable. As the Editors of the New York Times wrote, “Last week, both [Romney and Ryan] insisted that they would save Medicare by pumping a huge amount of money into the program, a bizarre turnaround for supposed fiscal conservatives out to rein in federal spending. The likelihood that they would stand by that irresponsible pledge after the election is close to zero.” (Emphasis added.) So, no Mr. Brooks, the Romney-Ryan plan was not written “on paper”; it was written on a whiteboard, no doubt erased within minutes or hours of its creation, and nobody believes it. There is nothing brave about misstating facts, significantly raising costs to seniors, and refusing to specify how the plan could be made “solvent.”
Even if Romney implies he has thrown his running mate’s plans for the social safety net out the window, David Brooks isn’t buying it. Brooks completely ignores Romney’s whiteboard, and speaks admiringly instead of Ryan’s Congressional proposals, proposals which, by the way, House Republicans have passed twice (the bills died in the Senate). Brooks claims, “At least Ryan has a series of proposals that have been scored by the Congressional Budget Office…. Under the last Ryan plan, C.B.O. projects that the debt will shrink to 63 percent of G.D.P. by 2022. I don’t see how anybody can say that Ryan is unserious when, unlike most national pols, he actually has a budget detailed enough for C.B.O. to score.” No, Ryan did not produce a budget detailed enough for the the C.B.O. to score. Nor did Ryan make proposals that the C.B.O. projected would shrink the debt to 63 percent of G.D.P. by 2022.
In a post titled “Saving Serious Ryan,” economist Paul Krugman of the New York Times derides “assertions that [Ryan] must be serious, because the Congressional Budget Office scored his plan and found that it led to lower debt:
People who say things like that evidently haven’t read any of the actual CBO analyses…. And in particular, they haven’t grasped how Ryan has gamed the system…. CBO did not score the policy provisions in the Ryan plan; there wasn’t remotely enough detail for a comprehensive assessment, and they didn’t do a partial of what was specified. Instead, they laid out the implications of revenue and spending paths that were just assumed per Ryan’s instructions – without expressing any view about whether these paths were plausible.
Indeed, I think I detect a bit of discreet snark in what the CBO report actually did say. On revenue, it declared:
“The path for revenues as a percentage of GDP was specified by Chairman Ryan’s staff. The path rises steadily from about 15 percent of GDP in 2010 to 19 percent in 2028 and remains at that level thereafter. There were no specifications of particular revenue provisions that would generate that path. ([Krugman's] italics)”
On spending, they declared:
“That combination of other mandatory and discretionary spending was specified to decline from 12 percent of GDP in 2010 to about 6 percent in 2021 and then move in line with the GDP price deflator beginning in 2022, which would generate a further decline relative to GDP. No proposals were specified that would generate that path. ([Krugman's] italics, again)”So Ryan gamed the system: he got CBO to produce a report which looks to those who don’t actually read it like a validation of his numbers, when in fact he prevented any actual scoring of his proposals. If you think otherwise, you’ve been snookered. [Emphasis here, mine]
As is obvious from Krugman’s post, the CBO did not project, as Brooks claims, “that the debt will shrink to 63 percent of G.D.P. by 2022.” That’s what Paul Ryan “projected.” The C.B.O. flat-out wrote that Ryan provided absolutely no proposals “that would generate that path.” When Collins complained in their Conversation that Ryan was “gearing up” to run up the debt yet again, Brooks “corrected” her: “You say the Ryan budget would roll up a huge amount of debt, but the C.B.O. disagrees.” No, the C.B.O. does not disagree with Collins. The C.B.O. report agrees with Collins. Brooks is not telling the truth. Period.
Bill Maher, not an economist, explains Ryan’s seriousness another way in today’s Huffington Post, “This is how low we’ve put the bar for political courage — that you can just write, “I want a pony” in a binder and call it the ‘Plan For Restoring Vision For the Future of America’s Greatness’ or some shit, and then everyone has to refer to you as the serious one in Congress.”
On Tuesday, Brooks devoted part of his column to Praising Serious Ryan and his sidekick Mitt Romney (or is it the other way around? – it’s hard to tell) for the “ heavy government activism, flexibility and rampant pragmatism” of the“Medicare reform package [they] have proposed.” According to Brooks’ so-called analysis, here’s the Romney/Ryan plan:
The federal government would define a package of mandatory health benefits. Private insurers and an agency akin to the current public Medicare system would submit bids to provide coverage for those benefits. The government would give senior citizens a payment equal to the second lowest bid in each region to buy insurance. This system would provide a basic health safety net. It would also unleash a process of discovery. If the current Medicare structure proves most efficient, then it would dominate the market. If private insurers proved more efficient, they would dominate. Either way, we would find the best way to control Medicare costs. Either way, the burden for paying for basic health care would fall on the government, not on older Americans. (Much of the Democratic criticism on this point is based on an earlier, obsolete version of the proposal.)
Wow! Sounds responsible! And “unleashing a process of discovery”! Why, it’s innovative, too! I just can’t overuse my exclamatory finger enough. But economist Dean Baker outlined why, “as usual, just about everything of substance in the [Brooks] piece is wrong.” I recommend reading Baker’s whole post, but let’s zero in on fallacies in Brooks’ characterization of the Romney/Ryan plan. Baker writes,
… the idea that Ryan and Romney have some new plan to ‘fix’ Medicare, while President Obama has nothing turns reality on its head. The new Ryan plan is a variation on past efforts to include private insurers in the Medicare program. The past programs had names like Medicare Advantage (Bush II vintage) and Medicare Plus Choice (Gingrich vintage). These experiments raised costs. These experiments raised costs. (Sorry for the repetition, but if Brooks is reading it is probably necessary.) The problem is that private insurers have higher costs than the public program. And, there will naturally be higher administrative costs associated with shuffling people back and forth between programs.
It is also worth noting that the prior versions of Ryan’s Medicare plan gave people a voucher which the Congressional Budget Office concluded would be grossly inadequate to pay for Medicare equivalent policies. Brooks might consider it unfair to go back to the plan that Ryan put forward back when he was just a young man in 2011, but it might give some indication of how he views Medicare.
Baker adds that Brooks seems not to have heard of the Affordable Care Act a/k/a ObamaCare, “which reduced the projected shortfall in Medicare by two-thirds…. President Obama has taken important first steps in restraining Medicare costs. [Brooks'] preferred ticket of Romney and Ryan want us to try again an experiment from the Gingrich and Bush days which has already failed twice. ”
Robert Reich, a public policy expert and former Secretary of Labor, is equally dismissive of Brooks’ effort to laud Ryan’s “reforms”:
Ryan ‘reforms’ Medicaid by destroying it – cutting the federal contribution by some $800 billion and then continuing the cuts after the first ten years until federal spending is a small fraction of what it is today, and handing it over to the states, which can’t possibly keep the program going. Ryan ‘reforms’ food stamps by slashing them – reducing the federal contribution by around $125 billion and then, beyond the first decade, essentially ending the program altogether. He ‘reforms’ Medicare by substituting vouchers that can’t possibly keep up with the rising costs of health care.
Originally he wanted to ‘reform’ Social Security by turning it into private savings accounts whose value would rise or fall at the whim of the Wall Street casino. (Now he doesn’t suggest any reform of Social Security. )
This is all fine with Brooks. Underlying all of his writing this week is his rock-solid belief that the only way to reduce the federal budget deficit is to slash social safety net programs. In his column today, Brooks attempts to snooker the reader into believing his views are balanced by taking a different tack: instead of praising Ryan yet again, Brooks faults him for not voting in favor of the Simpson-Bowles (Catfood) Commission plan. (Actually, there never was a finalized plan because Ryan and others voted it down. Having failed to produce a plan [no surprise there], Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles put out their own, different, personal plan.) Brooks writes that Ryan had “intellectually coherent reasons” for his vote; according to Brooks – and Ryan – “it was silly to come up with a debt-reduction proposal that didn’t fix the single biggest driver of the nation’s debt” – healthcare costs. According to conservative Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, who also served on the Commission, Ryan’s intellectually coherent reason for voting against Simpson-Bowles was Grover No-Tax Norquist. Gregg said, “All of the House Republicans [on the Simpson-Bowles Commission] were disproportionately affected by the Norquist group on the issue of tax reform.” Ryan’s new running mate, “… has criticized Obama for not embracing the debt reduction package, [and has] said ‘my plan is very similar to the Simpson-Bowles plan.’” Just another awkward disagreement between Willard and his Chosen One. Brooks takes Romney’s side: he writes that Ryan should have been more pragmatic and got with the plan. By voting against this magnificent attempt to leave granny and the poor people by the side of the road, “Ryan was giving up significant debt progress for a political fantasy,” the fantasy that he – Paul Ryan – could nearly eliminate the social safety net.
As Paul Krugman illustrates in his own New York Times column today, the basis for that fantasy is an actual fantasy – Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. Ryan, writes Krugman,
is deadly serious about cutting taxes on the rich and slashing aid to the poor, very much in line with Rand’s worship of the successful and contempt for ‘moochers.’ In pushing for draconian cuts in Medicaid, food stamps and other programs that aid the needy, Mr. Ryan isn’t just looking for ways to save money. He’s also, quite explicitly, trying to make life harder for the poor – for their own good. In March, explaining his cuts in aid for the unfortunate, he declared, ‘We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.’
Brooks likes the Simpson-Bowles plan because it “would have simplified the tax code [i.e., eliminated loopholes] and lowered rates. It would have capped the size of government. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, it would have brought the federal debt down from 73 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product today, to 67 percent of G.D.P. In 2022.” Yeah, right. As Jeff Madrick of the Roosevelt Institute wrote during the debate over Simpson-Bowles, “… closing loopholes is one of the perennially unfulfilled political promises of all time. If anything happens, we will get tax cuts and retain loopholes.” Simpson and Bowles set that “cap on the size of government” Brooks finds so appealing at 21 percent of G.D.P. Madrick called the limit “an outrage” and he explained why: “It is the average over the last forty years – before there were soaring health care costs, two new wars, and the retirement of the baby boomers. And there is utterly no evidence that a 21 percent economy will growth faster [sic.] than a 22 or 23 percent economy.” Recently, economist Larry Summers, of all people, backed up Madrick. In a Washington Post op-ed published last week, Larry got real:
For structural reasons, even preserving the amount of government functions that predated the financial crisis will require substantial increases in the share of the U.S. economy devoted to the public sector…. First, demographic change will greatly expand federal outlays unless politicians decide to degrade the level of protection traditionally provided to the elderly…. Second, the accumulation of more debt and a return to normal interest rates will raise the share of federal spending devoted to interest payments…. Third, increases in the price of what the federal government buys relative to what the private sector buys will inevitably raise the cost of state involvement in the economy. Since the early 1980s the price of hospital care and higher education has risen fivefold relative to the price of cars and clothing, and more than a hundredfold relative to the price of televisions…. Fourth, several methods that have been used to repress the deficit, such as federal pension liabilities and the deferred maintenance of federal infrastructure, will soon be unsustainable.
The facts Summers recites are the kinds that horrify Brooks and Ryan, but they should not horrify you. Conservatives want to go back to the policies of the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties when the government didn’t provide a comfy “hammock” at all: when all Americans were dependent upon their own devices and good fortunes to tide themselves over in difficult times.
How did that work out? The Congressional Research Service (like the C.B.O., a nonpartisan group) reported in 2006, “Final data for 2003 (the most recent available) show that life expectancy at birth for the total population has reached an all-time American high level, 77.5 years, up from 49.2 years at the turn of the 20the century.” Americans live more than half-again as long as they did in Brooks-Ryan’s halcyon days. While the researchers attribute most of the increase in longevity to “medical interventions, public health measures, and individual behaviors,” they also credit “social policies such as Medicare and Medicaid” because they “increase access to health care. Other social policies, such as Social Security, affect income, and may affect health through that channel. They also credit social policies like “civil rights legislation and improved health programs for the poor, especially through Medicaid.” The researchers might have added that even some of the medical breakthroughs and improved practices were the direct results of government research grants (not to mention medical advances learned the hard way – during wartime). Both “public health measures and individual behaviors,” which the researchers cite among the main causes of increased life expectancy, are greatly influenced by public policy, either directly through public health services or indirectly through public education.
David Brooks, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan don’t much care about other people’s troubles. They have excellent health insurance plans on top of their high incomes and wealth. They will likely never want for the wherewithal to combat whatever health problems they or their families may encounter. But – largely because of the overall policies the men espouse – policies that exacerbate income inequality and ensure that millions of Americans will remain at or below the poverty line – those same Americans the men would keep down and out will always need the government’s help. “The poor will always be with us,” Jesus is supposed to have said. David Brooks, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have done their best to see to that. As long as they insist upon keeping millions of their fellow countrymen, women and children down and out, they had better plan on taking care of them. Under the proposed Romney/Ryan reverse Robin Hood plan, millions of helpless Americans would be left to die on the street. If conservatives really want to cut social safety net programs for people’s own good, if David Brooks really wants to cut the deficit to next to nothing, then the lot of the conservative clan had better put their small minds together and figure out a way for all Americans – not just the few – to prosper and pay their own way. Their current plans and proposals are not just unworkable, pie-in-the-sky election season nonsense. They are immoral.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com